WE WERE THERE: Purdue at Pittsburgh, AJ is a grown man
So I live in Pittsburgh, and walk by the Peterson Events Center every day…and every day it’s a marvel to look at from the top of the Pitt campus hill. Really cool, modern external design, a massive jumbotron in the concourse visible from the street that’s always running some kind of live sports, and it looks like an alien spacecraft looming over Pitt’s engineering building and hospitals. You walk in, and it’s shiny and white and clean and everything is picture perfect and there’s a Burger King right there and you’re not sure why but it seems like a perfect blend of sell-out and college stadium. When you walk into the actual stands, there’s a surprising amount of concrete and a lot fewer seats than you thought, but it still looks way…cleaner than a normal college arena. And, even though our 11th ranked Boilermakers were in town, the stands were maaaaybe 75% full for a Tuesday 9pm tip with Pitt being perceived as a perfectly random team.
But holy hell, the Oakland Zoo. They surround the court, and they’re really good at their job.
(That was before the game...there were a few more fans than that during tipoff.)
Pitt fell behind 11-3 in the first five minutes of the game, and after Jamie Dixon’s exposed cuffs called two timeouts I expected a fierce comeback by a team that was playing well but just missed some good shots. But…something was different. AJ Hammons stepped on the Panthers’ throats and opened a 24-7 Boilermaker lead ten minutes in to the game. Here’s the exact note I wrote into my phone right after that stretch:
“15 to 11 minute mark in the first half – a stretch of impressive play that Purdue hasn’t shown since the Hummel days. Pitt is good, but Purdue stomped them out.”
Maybe I wrote that down a little too soon. Pitt went on a 19-5 to end the half with a wonderfully B1G score of 29-26, with Pitt running with full confidence but still shooting a subpar 34.5%. They would continue to trade baskets with Purdue (or…trade free throws, but we’ll get to that in a minute), driven by a combination of, let’s say, inconsistent refereeing, ice-cold shooting, and a freaking zone defense that Matt Painter’s team still can’t solve.
Seriously, how is it that Purdue has been stumped by zone defense for a solid decade?
Anyway…throughout this entire Pitt run, from the 10 minute mark in the first half until the 12 minute mark of the second half, the three-quarters full Pete and the Oakland Zoo were ready to explode. When James Robinson’s jumper hit the bottom of the net and finally gave Pitt their first lead of the game, there wasn’t a single Pitt fan in their seat. Seriously, that polished arena felt as loud as a full tin-roofed Mackey. And this Pitt team isn’t even that great. I might lament Pittsburgh’s lack of basketball love, but somehow the Panthers have managed to pull together one of the most impressive home court advantages in the country.
BUT THE CARMEL CONNECTION WOULD HAVE NONE OF IT.
Over the final twelve minutes of the game, AJ Hammons and Ryan Cline outscored the Panthers 23 to 15. That was it, end of story, game over, na na na na hey hey hey goodbye.
Pitt’s zone got a little weak, some of the previously crisp rotations began to wane, and some beautiful entry passing got Hammons the ball in perfect spots. AJ looked to be in a malaise until he nailed a hook shot at the 16 minute mark of the second half, and had a sort of hop in his step for the rest of the game. He still didn’t contest shots like he usually does, which was disappointing, but offensively he took over. He would finish with 24 points (17 in the second half) on 10/15 shooting, 2 FOR 2 FROM BEHIND THE ARC, and 12 grown man rebounds (8 in the second half).
Remember when AJ wasn’t our best player? Remember when we thought he wouldn’t win the starting spot back from Isaac?
(Response: Remember when he was largely trash for the first 25 minutes?)
And Cline…well, he played very passable defense despite a general lack of any defensive instincts, but missed a few crucial defensive switches that left his man wide open under the basket on consecutive plays. On the other end, he wasn’t swinging the ball all that well, and was launching some pretty ill-advised three pointers, including a corner three that was contested by two defenders and released from behind the basket.
Oh yeah, that three didn’t even graze the rim before swooshing in. And he hit his final four 3 pointers, with the first one giving Purdue its lead back and the following ones widening Purdue’s lead to put the game away for good. And he pulled up for each one with complete confidence. Further proof that shooters gotta shoot, and that Coach Painter knows better than a lot of us idiots who called for Cline to redshirt. Oops.
Purdue would eventually win 72-59, after the most perfect AJ Hammons dagger 3 pointer with 28 seconds left, in a game that wasn’t nearly as comfortably won as the final score might suggest.
Biggest takeaway from the game: None of the perimeter players (outside of Clutch Cline) stepped up when Purdue was flailing against the zone. We miss the Captain. Get well quick, Ray Davis.
Oh, and Pitt has a pretty great home court situation going on. More fans should show up to marquee games.
Some notes I wrote directly into my phone, and I’m too lazy to edit all of them because it’s midnight so here’s some bullet-point vomit thoughts, sorry I’m not sorry:
- Shoutout to Chris, the dude who sat in our section wearing an incredible Purdue Christmas sweater and gave the Purdue Basketball Beat podcast some love. I’d give my life for Chris.
- I love that the Oakland Zoo sits all the way around the court, and that they put up newspapers during opposing player intros, and that they throw confetti in the air after Pitt’s first made basket, and that that they are the only non-soccer crowd to pull of the Seven Nation Army chant without being intolerable, and that they’re liberal with telling opposing players that they suck with a surprising amount of unity, and that they are louder than 90% of college basketball arenas without even close to a sellout crowd.
- Buffalo tenders at stadiums are always overpriced and mediocre.
- Biggie Swanigan has been a rebounding machine (he finished with 8 rebounds, 6 in the first half) but was an offensive liability in the first half. He would improve slightly as the game went on, and would make some impressive passes, but he’s continuing to hit an early freshman wall.
- Biggie seems like a massive human being, and Isaac is easily twelve feet taller than him.
- Dang there are a lot of Purdue fans at the game, tons of Boiler Ups and Purdue cheers around the stadium during Zoo lulls. (Side story: the guy who scanned our tickets stopped me and said “Wow, why did you guys choose to travel in packs to Pittsburgh?” After telling him we lived in the city, he responded “Well, I just didn’t expect Purdue to travel this well. Great fan base.” Damn straight.)
- Isaac Haas gets refereed like Shaq in 2001.
- Speaking of the refs…good lord were they awful at their jobs. Brian Dorsey, Jeffery Anderson, and Lee Jones. A really really really awful refereeing crew that should be highlighted for their abysmal efforts at the Pete tonight. For the first 35 minutes, Purdue couldn’t buy a foul, and every one of its bigs were getting hacked and held without any repercussion. All the while, they would be incredibly quick to call every single shadow of a hand-check, missed several possession calls, and looked generally flustered by the entire situation. Then, for the last five minutes, every Pitt player that coughed in the general direction of a Boilermaker was called for a flagrant 3. Really, I’m not saying this just because they thought Hammons suddenly learned how to draw a foul with 5 minutes left in the game – this refereeing crew was bad for both teams, and they should feel bad.
- I wish I could get one of those Harry Potter-style moving paintings of every AJ alley-oop.
- The hell. Is Purdue going to figure out how to beat a zone without fumbling for 15 minutes of gameplay?
- It’s hella loud but I have no idea how it’s hella loud because this stadium doesn’t seem like one that should be hella loud.
- Painter was screaming his lungs out every time Purdue failed to communicate on a switch. Dakota Mathias got a particularly fierce yelling.
- Speaking of Painter aneurysms and bad refereeing – CMP was right in the head referee’s ear (I think it was Brian Dorsey) for two solid minutes during halftime. He even topped it off with an air-hump at the end. Masterful performance.
- Rapheal was basically another assistant coach during timeouts, and during the TO right after Purdue lost the lead he was in the faces of every player who was getting significant playing time…but he wasn’t yelling. He seemed to be teaching. The Captain is the freaking best.
- Kid Stephens was chucking up a storm, and put up a dismal 1-9 shooting performance…but he also ended up with 5 assists and had some absolutely gorgeous entry passes to AJ Hammons during Purdue’s final run. Stephens used his length to play some fantastic defense around screens down the stretch, and found ways to make himself useful while still being a frustrating puddle of terribleness while shooting the ball.
- So, Vince Edwards is my guy. And he ended up with a very respectable 9 points on 3/6 shooting, 6 assist, 3 rebound game…but I was really disappointed that he didn’t attempt to take over during Purdue’s struggle bus stretch against the zone. He’s got such supernatural playmaking abilities (see the stellar 6 assists in an otherwise-mediocre game), but still seems somewhat passive when things are getting bad. I’d kill to see him have a red-button game with Ray sidelined.
- PJ Thompson was the unsung hero, and Purdue wouldn't have won without him, and he's a really good point guard, and I'm so glad he's good because Hill looked mediocre, and he had a few under-the-radar clutch threes and two steals to seal the game, and PJ is awesome and was under-recruited and will be such a great Boilermaker captain in a year.
- Aaron Jarrell Hammons is a grown-ass mayne. He had a fairly lackluster beginning to the game, but when Purdue needed a bucket they kept feeding the big fella…and all he did was deliver. And grab rebounds in a beautifully over-the-top way. AJ is the best. I’m so glad I got to watch that in person. I ride with AJ until the end.
Tweet of the Night:
Well, anything by @N_THEYSTAYTHERE because he tweets about basketball in all caps and for some reason I find that endearing and wonderful and amazing.
But really it’s this:
Wait. Not the actual tweet. The replies. Just look at the replies. It’s worth signing up for Twitter just to read those replies.
Shoutout to Carmel, tho.
Feature image from the Lafayette Journal and Courier.